Every once-in-awhile I go back and read old posts in order to see the evolution of my own thought, among other things. Recently, I went back to this post and reread what I wrote concerning evangelical Christians and why I no longer considered myself one of them. This blog post has received the most hits of any article I’ve posted in the nearly two years this website has existed. It has had, literally, hundreds of views since its posting in January of 2009. I have to admit that I was a bit uneasy rereading that post. Not because of anything I said in particular, but because of the tone. I strive on this website to not post things that I have not let “settle” for awhile in my mind and emotions. Clearly, that post was written in a time of high frustration with my evangelical friends in the Christian community. The critique was a bit harsh, but not dishonest. I don’t necessarily take back anything I said, but I do wish I had given it a little more time before I abruptly posted something that was highly emotional for me at the time. I’ve written two posts under the series title “The Mind of the Christian Independent” which I hope have added some clarity as to my current method, but I wanted to offer this piece as a more mature version of the “Why I am no longer an Evangelical Christian” post. I wanted to take a more level-headed approach to explain where I stand in relation to my former theological tradition. The label I use for this position is post-evangelical (see the book review posted along with this article which will give you a fuller context for the thoughts expressed in this piece). There has been a certain evolution in my definition of myself since leaving the evangelical community for good in 2008 and now that I’ve had more time to meditate on things (and realize the aforementioned article was more of a rant), I offer this article as a more full-grown explanation of my frustrations and spiritual journey.
I want to begin by saying that I had an amazing childhood growing up in an independent, conservative, (but by no means fundamentalist) Baptist church in New England. The people I grew up with truly loved the Lord and sought to serve Him with their whole hearts. I can remember Mr. George, Miss Cindy, Miss Debbie, and a whole lot of other “Misters” and “Misses” who worked with me during Vacation Bible School, going back as far as I can remember. These people instilled in me a love for the things of God through their personal enthusiasm for our Lord. Several of these people have gone on to be the Lord and several of them I saw just recently when I returned to Connecticut for my grandmother’s funeral (my last grandparent, Marion Mars, went to be with the Lord August 7th, 2010). My interest in spiritual things would wax and wane over time, until I made a deep, personal commitment to Christ when I was in Jr. High school. Many people, including my youth pastor Lance, Cliff, John, Pastor Ken, Marge, Debra, Matt and too many others to name had a formative influence on my faith (I refrain from using their last names, because I didn’t seek their permission to use them). I was a happy person when I was a child and in my teen and early college years because of the investment that these people made in my life. And, of course, my late grandmother, my parents, sister, best friends, and multiple aunts, uncles, and cousins (many of whom attended the same church) have played powerful roles in my life and in my journey with God. The community I grew up in – an evangelical church at its best – provided me with a safe place to belong in some of my more emotionally vulnerable years.
Evangelicalism taught me about God’s love for people and what being a servant was about. It taught me that God was personally interested in my life and loved me enough to send His Son to liberate me from my sin. It taught me a love of the scriptures that I still retain today and sparked many an intellectual quest for me, resulting in a lot of parking lot conversations after church with so many of the aforementioned people. I learned how to pray in that tradition. I was baptized in that tradition. I preached sermons in that tradition. I was taught a love for those who had not heard of God in evangelicalism and learned about God’s passion to share His love with all people. I was a youth pastor for nearly two years in the church I grew up in, went to Bible College in that tradition and even have my undergraduate degree in Religion from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. I would not be the person I am today without this heritage and I am truly thankful to God for it.
It was also in this tradition and in that same church that I met a few “characters” as my Aunt Carol would call them. It was from these people, devout and sincere, truly passionate about God that I would unfortunately pick up some bad habits and the extremism that would make me a fundamentalist. None of the aforementioned was involved with this aspect and those that were shall remain unnamed. These people truly cared about me and I know they still do. They’re not bad people. I would describe many of them as “zealous for God, but without knowledge” (Roman 10:2). They meant well and in that spirit they discipled me and taught me what they thought was the true gospel. You can read more about my personal spiritual journey here as it relates to one aspect of my journey out of fundamentalism. However well meaning, some of those good people created a legalistic nightmare in my heart and mind that would drive me into a deep, dark depression in my late twenties.
The fundamentalist mindset is an uncomplicated one that is interwoven with simplistic explanations for the world around us. Throughout my mid-twenties I began struggling both personally and theologically, as many of the things promised by my tradition were not coming to pass in my life as I had expected them to. I did not feel as intimate with God as I had hoped to. I did not have the peace and joy I had wanted to. And, thus, what I call my Great Depression occurred from 2006 through most of 2007. It was a horrifically confusing time as I not only began to question and discard my fundamentalism, but began to question even more deeply the basic worldview I had adopted from my evangelical heritage. This was an extremely painful and anxiety-provoking process that left me feeling utterly lost at times and scared of where I would end up. Evangelicals often reject the extremism of fundamentalism and rightly so. They are a “kinder, gentler” conservative for sure and the answers they give are more practical and down-to-earth. But not even their answers, the ones I had held to my whole life, seemed to be able to offer an oasis in my spiritual desert. It was in the midst of these barren places that I became real honest with myself and God about a lot of things. I finally started asking difficult questions about God, life, myself, and this theology I had grown up with. Why was it not working?
I stopped being afraid to question certain things I had always believed. Today, it is my strong conviction that nothing is beyond questioning. We shouldn’t be afraid to question our beliefs, even our most cherished ones, because if a belief is truly scriptural and truly of God, then it should be able to withstand the test of the questioning process. Sadly, many of the evangelical beliefs that had once provided answers for me no longer could satisfy me deep down and, truthfully, at some level, I wonder if they really ever had. Other theological traditions and worldviews provided answers and healing for me at a time when I desperately needed to make peace with myself, my life, and God in many areas both personally and theologically. While I retain many things from my early life heritage, there are some things that had to go in order for me to be able to retain intellectual and emotional honesty with myself and God. I’d like to share a few of the conclusions I came to here and explain why I now consider myself post-evangelical.
1. I cannot worship a God who would torture my “unsaved” loved ones in perpetual, burning fire. This has to be one of the biggest issues theologically for me. In the current series I’m doing for this blog, I am slowly, briefly laying out the case for Christian Universalism as I see it. This, more than any other issue, nearly caused me to lose my faith. Discovering that God’s love extends to all people the same and will rescue all people in the end has brought me a peace of mind about my ultimate destiny and about those I’ve lost. Since I’ve talked about this at length here then I won’t go any deeper into it in this post.
2. I do not believe that God demands blood before He can forgive. If He commands me to forgive my enemies without exacting anything from them, then why should it be any different for Him? I reject penal-substitutionary atonement – the belief that God punishes Jesus instead of me. The church had unanimously believed in one view of the atonement since the beginning of Christianity – nearly a thousand years! – before people started proposing alternative theories. I currently believe that the Christus Victor view of the atonement (the original belief) more accurately represents the scriptural teaching. The idea that God punished Jesus instead of me is only about five centuries old and did not – and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough – did not exist as a doctrine for the first fifteen centuries of the church until invented by John Calvin in the 1600s. I’m not saying that later understandings were necessarily all wrong. They’ve given us a lot to think about, but you can’t look at me and say with a straight face that the first Christians who knew the Lord Himself and all the Christians for a thousand years after that were wrong and completely missed the meaning of the cross and resurrection, and then, suddenly, Calvin comes along and discovers it out of nowhere. Yeah right. The more obvious reason no one believed it for fifteen centuries is because it’s not true. God forgives because God is love, not because His blood-lust was satisfied through an act of violence toward his own Son (which is why penal-substitutionary atonement is a version of “satisfaction theory”). Christ put the ugliness of sin on full display at the crucifixion, defeated it through loving forgiveness, and then did the same to death through His resurrection, ransoming the entire human race from the clutches of sin and the grave.
3. An inerrant Bible is worthless without an inerrant interpreter. The whole Catholic and Eastern Orthodox argument against Protestants shifting authority from the Church to the Bible alone was that it was substituting a paper pope for a human pope and that is exactly what has happened. If I had a dime for every time someone I know or I myself have said “The Bible clearly says…” or “Scripture clearly teaches…” or some derivation of those words, I’d be able to drop out of graduate school and retire at 30. The fact is that there are thousands of denominations because every time someone thinks he has a truer insight into the Bible than the guy before him, he breaks off and starts a new sect (I believe the rubric I set forth HERE is a good guide in theological controversies). To debate whether scripture is inerrant is pointless, because, even if you could answer in the affirmative, without an infallible, inerrant interpreter, the chaos of protestant denominationalism is the sure result. I do not worship the Bible, I worship God and He is the only person who is infallible (besides, without an infallible interpretation of the Bible, you can’t know whether it is inerrant, anyway).
4. Evangelicals have sold their souls to the Religious Right and the Republican Party in the United States. For the record, I am a registered independent and have voted for members of both political parties whenever I thought it was appropriate. My conservative friends call me a liberal and my liberal friends call me a conservative, which reassures me that I’m somewhere in the middle. I used to be caught up in the whole “Let’s take America back for Christ” mentality, but no more. Any objective study of American history will show that we never were a truly Christian nation in the sense that many evangelicals claim we were (check out this book on the topic – it was written by an evangelical professor from Liberty University, of all places!). There has been a lot of irresponsible quoting of America’s founding fathers in support of this false idea. It is all the more remarkable especially when it can be clearly demonstrated by quoting those same founding fathers in other places that they did not want this to be a religious government. Thomas Jefferson was the one who coined the phrase “separation of church and state” in order to reassure a bunch of baptists that no religious group would ever control our government. Anyone who’s studied history can see the tragedy that results when religion and state are combined (think about the Crusades and the Inquisition). It doesn’t mean religion can’t be in the public sphere as some extreme liberals contend; it’s just that the church isn’t to dictate public policy and policymakers aren’t to dictate to the church or the citizenry what they must believe and which way of life to follow. Evangelicals have gone mad for political power in the past few decades and it is shameful what they have done to attain it. It is even more shameful what this power grab has done to the name of Jesus among non-Christian people. Let’s get something straight: Jesus is the savior of the world, not the G.O.P. (or the Democrats for that matter).
5. I am a social scientist in training and I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with the anti-science and blissful ignorance of some of my evangelical friends. It seems that a lot of conservative Christians would rather continue to believe that all of the humanities find their inspiration in some Satanic plot to destroy the Bible than to critically and intelligently engage non-Christians in dialogue. The reality is that God did not create the world in six literal days and no, psychology is not of the devil! Thank goodness this is not true of all evangelicals, but I’m tired of junk science being passed off for scholarship when it is just a thinly veiled attempt to provide “objective” data to try and confirm a preconceived theological position and not a real attempt as scientific theory building. I cannot even begin to relate to you some of the ridiculous comments I’ve heard in conservative circles uttered about my field of psychology. Instead of seeing all truth as God’s truth and seeking to discover the world for the way it is, many of them would rather plug their ears and cover their eyes so that they don’t have to do the hard work of reconciling all the data, whether it be truly scientific or a reflection of accurate Biblical exegesis. And then they excuse their willful ignorance with some super-spiritual claim to be the ones who are truly being faithful to God’s word. Give me a break!
6. Their attitudes toward and treatment of gays is deplorable. Admittedly, my position is liberal on this point and I know I risk losing some readership by my stance on this issue. Let’s be honest about something: the Bible has been used to justify everything from the Inquisition to slavery to the subordination of women to segregation of blacks and whites. Remember: all those people believed “The Bible clearly says…that slaves must submit to their masters” or “The Bible clearly says…women must submit to men” or “The Bible clearly says…that God separated the races as punishment against Noah’s sons” (I’m not making this stuff up). “The Bible clearly says…(fill in the blank).” How many times have evangelicals claimed the Bible clearly taught something only to revise their position 30, 50, 100 years later? It is not a healthy community which does not humble itself and learn their lessons. It’s like a little boy who, no matter how many times he gets burned, keeps playing with matches. The truth is there are plenty of plausible, logical arguments (even from a conservative hermeneutic) that demonstrate the flimsiness of the anti-gay position that most evangelicals hold. The reason they don’t realize it? Because they’ve never taken the time to study it! They just point at a verse here and a verse there and say, “There you go! The Bible clearly says…blah blah blah.” The fact of the matter is that love is never a sin (Romans 13:8, 10) and two people, even if they be of the same sex, who love each other should not be condemned for seeking to meet one another’s needs and commit to doing so for the rest of their lives. Their sexual preferences are something over which they had no choice (and that is decidedly clear from the biological evidence – see point number 5). This issue is alienating thousands of people from Christianity (and, thankfully, some evangelicals are beginning to call a spade a spade on this issue). I cannot begin to imagine the number of good people who have committed suicide because their conservative churches told them God didn’t accept them the way they were and they couldn’t be gay and Christian. Whether you think gays were born that way or not, should be celibate or not, or should marry or not, the fact is that the often cruel, vindictive way they are talked about by evangelicals from pulpits and in the news media is not the way Jesus would have treated anybody. You can make the Bible say whatever you want to cover up the fact that homosexuality makes you personally uncomfortable or, perhaps, your very real prejudice. Whatever the issue is, there is no excuse in the scriptures not to love your neighbor. And if anything’s clear, it’s that!
7. Finally, simply put, evangelical teachings on personal growth, for the most part, didn’t work for me. I alluded to this earlier, but it was the decisive issue for me: none of their personal growth teachings ever worked to heal me. I only found healing in the offices of courageous Christian counselors who had studied psychology and had reconciled it with a different, decidedly non-evangelical interpretation of the Christian spiritual life. The evangelical methods did not work for me. I needed something more and I found it outside evangelicalism. Evangelicalism takes a modernistic approach, through education, to how to grow a person up in the faith. The idea is that right thinking leads to right living. Psychology has shown this to be overly simplistic. There is much within this tradition that highly values knowledge. Unfortunately, this knowledge is often to the neglect of experience. And that is my point. Knowledge will only get you so far. Bible studies and discipleship guides will only get you so far. Theological study will only get you so far. There comes a point where you need to go on to deeper levels of experience that cannot be explained or taught with the precision of science. You can read all the books you want about a person, but you don’t truly know them until you experience them in everyday life. And so it is with God. It’s not neat and clean, but sloppy and unpredictable. Most often, “discipleship” in evangelical churches, in the end, is simply teaching a person to regurgitate the theology of that church and denomination. It was evangelicalism’s failure to help me at my most vulnerable moments and provide for me the relief from my personal suffering that was the final nail in the coffin. Simply put, I wanted something deeper and more fulfilling and I didn’t find it there. All I found were recycled slogans and pat answers (I truly apologize if you are offended by these statements, but this was my experience and has been the experience of countless thousands of other people who make up the Emergent Church and consider themselves post-evangelical. See more below).
These are the main reasons I can no longer call myself an evangelical. I am very grateful for the heritage that I have and the good things I retain from that heritage. But, truth is, I’ve outgrown it. By saying that I do not mean to insinuate that I am somehow more advanced than an evangelical, for there are many evangelicals who would put me to shame in their love and devotion to the Lord. I simply mean that as a worldview and system, both personally and theologically, it no longer answers the big questions for me in a satisfying way, nor does it lead me into the presence of God the way I long for. I’m not saying these things to be hurtful, or out of some hidden, inner rebellion against God. It is simply where I’m at in my journey. I consider myself to be post-evangelical. It’s a title that preserves my heritage, but also indicates I’ve moved beyond it. It’s a label such as post-fundamentalist, post-liberal, post-protestant and many others that a group of Christians in the post-modern, 21st century church movement known as the Emergent Church (a group of mostly former evangelicals who’ve had the same experience I did) have adopted to demonstrate that many of us are moving beyond the black and white, easy answers of the modernist 20th century in an effort to try and create a truly integrated church that is unified around the Lordship of Christ and love for one another and our non-Christian neighbors.
I intend on talking more about this topic in the weeks and months ahead as I share with you my thoughts on some of the amazing books I’ve been reading and the new things I’m learning (see the sister article posted with this one). Let me just say this in closing: I love my evangelical family and friends with all my heart and most evangelicals are good people. My life has taken me in a different direction and I’ve found more satisfying answers both intellectually and emotionally in a more progressive and emergent, developing, 21st century Christian community that, while being post-modern, retains much of Christianity’s ancient roots. I hope that this blog post better explains my exodus from evangelicalism and that my tone has been tempered more with the grace of Jesus.